Russians who fled war win case to end stay at South Korea airport

Two of five Russians living for months at Incheon airport to avoid fighting in Ukraine have refugee appeal accepted.

South Korean attorneys Lee Jong-chan (L) and Lee Il (2nd L), who represent Russian asylum seekers stranded at Incheon International Airport, speak to reporters outside the district court in Incheon on February 14, 2023. - A South Korean court on February 14 granted two Russian asylum seekers who have been stranded at Incheon airport for months right to apply for refugee status, allowing them to enter the country. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP)
South Korean lawyers who represented the Russian asylum seekers stranded at Incheon International Airport, speak to reporters outside the Incheon District Court on February 14, 2023 [Jung Yeon-je/AFP]

A court in South Korea has granted two Russian men – who have been stranded at the country’s Incheon International Airport for months – the right to apply for refugee status and leave the terminal building.

The Incheon District Court on Tuesday also rejected one other Russian national’s plea for asylum, without detailing the reasons for the decision.

The three had landed at the airport in October after fleeing Russia to avoid being drafted to fight in Ukraine.

South Korea’s justice ministry rejected their applications for refugee status, saying that avoiding military service did not qualify as a valid reason for receiving asylum in South Korea. All able-bodied men in South Korea must serve 18 months in the military as part of national service.

The rejection left the men – whose lawyer requested they not be named out of concern for the safety of their families back in Russia – stranded for months in the airport’s transit area, prompting them to bring a case to court.

“We welcome the court’s decision on the two but it is regrettable that it rejected the other one’s plea,” said Lee Jong-chan, a lawyer representing the three.

“They came here trying to avoid killing innocent people and getting themselves killed in a war initiated by their home country. It took them four months just to win the right to apply for refugee status,” he said.

The two will now be allowed to end their months-long airport stay and will be settled in South Korea while undergoing the asylum recognition process, which could take years.

The third Russian has the right to appeal his rejection, but he must remain living at the airport in the interim. Another two Russians are also living at the airport. The court will rule on their cases for asylum later this month.

Lee, the lawyer, told the Korea Times that returning to Russia was not a viable option for the third man.

“There’s a low chance that he would choose to return to Russia where he would face harsh punishment,” Lee was quoted as saying.

Travelling to another country might be an option, he added. Lee also said that he expected South Korea’s immigration authorities to appeal the court’s decision.

“But even if they do, the two men who won the case will still be able to leave the airport in accordance with today’s court ruling,” he told the Korea Times.

One of the asylum seekers – who arrived in South Korea on October 14 – told the newspaper that he could not believe the good news.

“I have been so nervous and worried about the trials that I didn’t give much thought about what I should do when I leave the airport,” he wrote in a text message on Tuesday.

Though South Korea has signed international conventions on refugees, the country typically accepts just a handful of asylum seekers each year.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies